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Davis, California

Saturday, May 18, 2024

When the graduate student is the professor

Spanish, chemistry discussion, introductory English, French and Native American Studies. All of the classes have something in common: the teachers may actually be graduate students.

These graduate student “professors” are typically Ph.D. candidates in the field that they are teaching, which means they may have just as much expertise as a professor might on their particular subject area.

According to senior Italian major Marlene Virgen, this gives the classes a little something extra – something to be excited about.

“I like that [graduate] students can be very engaging,” Virgen said. “Last year I took an anthropology class and the instructor was a graduate student, and she made her class fascinating and enlightening.”

This doesn’t mean students should expect to walk into a class full of games and entertainment, because these graduate students are still here to do a job. They want their students to get something out of their classes, just as a professor would.

According to Spanish Ph.D. student and teaching assistant José Ortigas, the most important part of teaching these classes is making sure his students leave with some new knowledge.

“Being able to contribute directly to a student’s education is extremely rewarding, especially when you can see that something you taught them has improved their understanding of the subject matter,” Ortigas said.

Because the subject deals directly with his culture as well, Ortigas finds it extremely rewarding to be able to share his knowledge with students.

“In my particular case, since transmitting an understanding and/or appreciation of the cultures of the Spanish-speaking world is an integral part of the beginning language course curricula, I love being able to share part of who I am and what my culture offers,” Ortigas said.

French Ph.D. student Gareth Love shared many of Ortigas’ thoughts.

“I like teaching because I get to watch the students advance and I get to interact with them and get to know them,” Love said. “It’s different when graduate students are teaching because the typical professor barriers are no longer there.”

As hard as the classes may be for students, they also present some pretty grueling challenges to these graduate students.

“Teaching interferes more than they tell us it should,” Love said. “It is easy to spend over two hours preparing exercises, and teaching sort of takes over your studies.”

Ortigas agreed that grading papers and preparing lessons tends to take more time than they may have initially expected, but he had one more concern about teaching his classes.

“The other aspect of teaching that is sometimes tough for me is having to give a student a low grade, even though that’s the mark they deserve,” Ortigas said.

Unlike undergraduate students, the graduate students have no choice whether or not they follow up on what happened in class at the end of the day. Once class is over, they grade tests and prepare more lesson plans.

According to Ortigas, who typically teaches Spanish at 8 a.m., his days usually run at least 12 hours.

After teaching his class, Ortigas corrects homework and other assignments, prepares new lesson plans, attends seminars and still manages to make time for his wife and son, as well as the occasional soccer game.

Then, at the end of every quarter, the graduate students rely on undergraduates to rate their performance on the dreaded evaluations.

“I don’t dread the evaluations. I’ve never had a bad one,” Love said. “The student suggestions are very helpful. There is definitely constructive criticism in the evaluations.”

Perhaps this will give undergraduate students more incentive to take these evaluations seriously.

“We really do look at them,” Love said. “As soon as they tell us the evaluations are available, everyone rushes to look at them. I’ve seen other [graduate] students in tears over them. They really are important.”

There are going to be pluses and minus whether students are taking a class from an actual professor, or one of the graduate students on campus.

“Graduate students sometimes assume that [undergraduates] will understand a concept after hearing it once in lecture and once more in discussion, while professors often become repetitive and read off their slides,” Virgen said.

MICHELLE STAUFFER can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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